Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ayn Rand: The Most Important Person You Know Nothing About

In June 2010, when the Tea Party was still an emerging political force, I read a book that did more to help me understand that movement and late twentieth-century/early twenty-first century political and economic debate than years of news consumption and reading. The funny thing is, I didn't pick up Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made because I wanted to understand Ron Paul and the Libertarian movement, Alan Greenspan, or the Tea Party. I picked it up because I happen to love her most famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (I don't really care for We, the Living or Anthem). Heller's title ostensibly refers to the fictional worlds that Rand created and lived in, but--as NPR recently suggested--the world in which we live is more and more a world made after the image of Ayn Rand.

Chances are that you've heard of Ayn Rand, notwithstanding the academy's scorn for her books. You've likely heard her name because her novels are tremendously popular. Heller writes,

"In a 1991 survey jointly sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Americans named Atlas Shrugged the book that had most influenced their lives (second only to the Bible). When the Modern Library asked readers in 1998 to name the twentieth century's one hundred greatest books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were numbers one and two on the list; Anthem and We, the Living were numbers seven and eight, trumping The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and Ulysses" (xii).

Literary critics asked to list the hundred best books did not mention Rand's name. In other words, Rand is tremendously popular but her work is virtually ignored by those who profess to teach the most important and influential literature of the twentieth century. Why? That neglect (by largely liberal academics) likely stems from Rand's "Objectivist" philosophy which makes self interest (or answering and acting upon the question, "What is best for myself?") the most highest individual priority and social good. Objectivists, who followed her philosophy, even founded their own conservative political party:

"Her ideas roared and shouted within a new group of young right-wing libertarians who were disgusted with the economic policies of the Republican Party and determined to found a party of their own, which they called the Libertarian Party. In its 'Statement of Principles' it rejected 'the cult of the omnipotent state' and called for the restoration of each individual's right to exercise sole dominion over his own life. It recommended a speedy return to the gold standard and, when seeking its first presidential candidate in 1972, it chose Rand's erstwhile friend John Hospers. Its founders and members, many of whom were self-declared Objectivists, almost universally revered Rand as the guiding light and most courageous exponent of limited government and free markets" (Heller 383-83).

The Libertarian Party has yet to win a major electoral contest, but many of its cherished principles--especially the limitation of government power and the restoration of individual rights--have been adopted by the Tea Party, which is a large part of the reason that a Republican presidential candidate like Rick Perry, in an attempt to curry favor with the Tea Party, proposed abolishing three agencies of the federal government (go ahead and watch--you'll laugh!). The Tea Party, which is currently fighting for control of the Republican Party and waging an uncompromising fight against Democratic lawmakers, is a movement inspired by Rand's books and ideas--which makes her life something worth studying.

Rand is Russian--she grew up in the turbulent years following the Russian Revolution and preceding World War II. Her family was extremely poor--they celebrated special occasions by eating "cakes made of potato peelings, carrot greens, coffee grounds, and acorns" (Heller 46). Rand moved to Chicago and then Hollywood, scraping her way to success by writing screenplays and then novels. Rand is, in this sense, a self-made woman (notwithstanding the aid and sacrifice of family members)--an admirable all-American story.

But if Rand's success in pulling herself up by her bootstraps is admirable, other aspects of her life are less so. Despite her insistence that Objectivism--and everything in her life--was governed by impeccable logic, she was extremely superstitious and believed in different forms of the supernatural:

"One night Rand spilled salt on a restaurant table and surprised the Hills by throwing a pinch of it over her left shoulder, an ancient rite to blind the devil. Most uncharacteristically, Hill also observed her in the role of witness to a UFO. One Saturday afternoon, Rand greeted the Hills by beckoning Ruth upstairs, into the immense master bedroom, where tall glass windows lined a wall to the left of the bed. 'Do you see those junipers?' she asked, pointing to a row of twelve-foot bushes about half an acre from the house. 'A UFO came by there last night.' Stunned, Hill asked for details. 'It was hovering just above the junipers and flying in slow motion,' she said. It was round and its outer edges were lighted, she continued, and it made no sound. By the time she woke [her husband] Frank and led him to the window, it had moved out of sight' (Heller 608).

In addition to these apparent lapses in logical thought, Rand was conducted her personal life without regard to widely held standards of morality. Rand was addicted to amphetamines  for most of her working life and was militantly anti-religious (which may have something to do with the Tea Party's ambivalence towards moral issues). During her married life she indulged in an affair with Nathaniel Branden, a married man twenty-five years her junior. Rand demanded complete obedience from Branden and anyone else who claimed to be an Objectivist. Branden wrote that Rand's inner circle all had to accept the following "implicit premises" transmitted to students of Objectivism:

  • Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
  • Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
  • Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moreal, or appropriate to man's life on earth.
  • Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and her work, the measure of one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position that one takes regarding her and her work. (Heller 302)
Rand presided over a sort of cult that revered her person; perhaps the best annecdote to make this point is one concerning her eventual "intellectual heir" and the man who founded and currently heads the Ayn Rand Institute: Leonard Peikoff. A member of Rand's 1970s inner circle reported that "Sometimes she would wipe the floor with [Peikoff]. You'd think he had threatened to kill her. I finally said, 'How can you let her do that?' He said, 'I would let her step on my face if she wanted'" (Heller 385). 

The champion of individual liberties seemed--at least in these instance--to have had little respect for the liberties of Branden (who didn't want to sleep with her but felt compelled to do so) and Peikoff. This inconsistency also applied to her financial principles. The champion of a free market and capitalism's potential to make all prosperous, Rand kept her money in a savings bank all her life; she never invested it. 

Heller's biography is one of the best I've ever read--and it chronicles the life of a woman who continues to dramatically shape American political debates, despite the fact that most people who invoke her name or her novels know little if anything about her. Few know that Alan Greenspan spent every Saturday night, from 8 PM to 4 or 5 AM Sunday morning, over the course of years listening to Rand speak. You want to understand Greenspan's ideological origins? Learn about Ayn Rand. You want to understand the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party? Learn about Ayn Rand. You want to understand John Boehner's politics? Learn about Ayn Rand. For these reasons, and many others, Rand's life is one worth understanding, and her novels are worth the reading. 

Even if you, like most of the academics who have ignored her novels, disagree with her ultra-conservative principles, you should learn about Ayn Rand. As Sun Tzu taught, the first principle of war is to "know your enemy." 


Matthew said...

"Americans named Atlas Shrugged the book that had most influenced their lives (second only to the Bible)."

This is depressing...

Interesting post - I knew a bit about her work, but I had no idea it was so influential.

Alana said...

I liked her books but she is a kook. That line about her Peikoff letting her step on his face is classic.